Varina Penner hopes every child can be proud of their differences.
The 17-year-old, who is in Grade 12 at Springs Christian Academy, was the winner of last year’s Diverse Minds creative writing competition held by B’nai Brith Canada.
Organizers say the educational initiative promotes diversity and teaches valuable lessons about inclusion and tolerance. Penner was one of 10 finalists in last year’s inaugural competition for her book called A Bear Like Me, which she both wrote and illustrated. As part of her prize, Penner won a $3,000 scholarship and also had her book published in hardcover and full-colour by B’nai Brith Canada.
Penner was talking to The Lance to encourage Grade 9 to 12 students across the province to apply for this year’s competition in light of the upcoming deadline, as well as the fact she featured on Ace Burpee’s Fascinating Manitobans for 2019 list, along with Adriana Glikman, B’nai Brith Canada’s national program co-ordinator.
Her story follows the journey of a little brown bear named Bruno, who comes to learn, by the end of the book, that there are many different types of bears, and that they are all equal, and all unique.
Penner said her friends encouraged her to write the story after the competition was promoted at her St. Boniface-based school, and she began to form the story and plot one sleepless night.
"I’d been thinking about it for a few months, and I needed to come up with an idea. I was laying in bed in the middle of the night, and it started to come together," Penner said.
During the next few days and weeks, the creative process evolved — and while the writing process took only a few hours, producing the artwork was more time-consuming.
Penner said winning the competition was a surreal and humbling experience that "didn’t sink in until about a month later."
"It was definitely an honour to win, and it was also great to step back and see the finished product of a book, which was not just an idea anymore. That gave me a great sense of accomplishment," she said.
"It was important to me to write the book because it helps spread ideas to young people. Everyone has ideas, and it’s important to act on them. I wanted to take this topic, and spread the message, and act on something that was happening around me. It think it’s important for everyone to say they’ve done something like this in their life."
Calling Penner a role model, Glikman said it’s important to be able to help young people spread a message "of diversity in the community and help them realize how they can make a difference."
"It’s important to promote human rights, tolerance, diversity and inclusion in a clear, simple and effective way to the younger generations," she added.
When asked about making Burpee’s annual year-end list, Penner said she is humbled the local radio personality, who was one of the competition’s judges, remembers her. "It’s really cool," Penner said.
The other judges included B’nai Brith member and community youth advocate Cheryl Barish; Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth; Ladybug Foundation founder Hannah Taylor; and social worker and advocate Mitch Bourbonniere.
Glikman said there will also be second and third prizes of $1,500 and $500, respectively, and the teacher and school of the first prize winner will both receive $500, as well.
The deadline for submissions is March 9. Go online at www.bnaibrith.ca/diverseminds for more information.
Community journalist — The Lance
Simon Fuller is the community journalist for The Lance. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org Call him at 204-697-7111
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